Kidnapped (1917)

2018 #159
Alan Crosland | 64 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent (English)

Kidnapped DVD

The first screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous adventure yarn, the 1917 film of Kidnapped was believed by some to be lost. It was nothing of the sort, having been held in the Library of Congress’ collection since the ’40s. That’s not readily available to most of us, of course, but thankfully there are individuals like Movies Silently’s Fritzi Kramer who have the dedication to not only unearth these things, but to then spend the time and effort required to put together a DVD release. Such enterprises aren’t achieved through hard work alone, however, hence a Kickstarter campaign that was thankfully successful. And for those who missed out on that, the finished DVD is now available to purchase from Amazon.com. (For the benefit of UK readers, the cost of importing it currently comes to £26.12, though if you’re lucky it might slip through customs unnoticed and Amazon will one day reimburse you £4.35. Or you could wait for the exchange rate to improve, but, given Brexit, hahaha, good luck with that.)

Anyway, what of the film itself? Running just over an hour, it’s a brisk dash through Stevenson’s story. I’ll cop to not being familiar with the original tale, but apparently this version sacrifices no more than an average adaptation, despite that comparatively speedy running time. For the benefit of those as unacquainted with the text as I: it’s the story of David Balfour (Ray McKee), a young man who should inherit the Scottish castle inhabited by his uncle Ebenezer (Joseph Burke), but the latter has no intention of giving it up, instead arranging for David to be kidnapped (hence the title) and carted off to The Colonies.

“Yep, kid — you've been napped!”

Chance sees David moved up from being cargo to serving as the ship’s cabin boy (what to do when the cabin boy brings you a dirty cup? Accidentally murder him, then in his place promote the young lord you’ve kidnapped to sell as a slave, of course), which allows him to run into adventurer Alan Breck (Robert Cain), who’s found his way aboard the same vessel (Breck’s introduction: “I’m vexed, sir. Ye’ve sunk my boat, and drowned my man. Be so kind as to land me at once!”) The ship’s dastardly crew plot to off Breck, but he and David team up, escape, and embark on a journey to reclaim the young Balfour’s inheritance. Along the way there’s swashing of buckles and encountering of real-life historical events, albeit bent slightly to suit the plot, and bent again to suit the moral mores of the film adaptation, which was advertised as being “for all the family” and “guaranteed censor proof!”

While some bits may look silly with today’s eyes (or maybe they did at the time too, I don’t know — did a sailor dying instantly from being shot in the arm ever play well?), there’s plenty of adventurous fun to be had, and the production values are good. Mostly. I mean, at one point our heroes are taken to meet a Highland chieftain who lives in a cave with a window and dresses like a lumberjack in a skirt, but what’re you gonna do? Caves-with-windows aside, most of the sets aren’t half bad, and the location work is really good — it must’ve been shot somewhere in the US, but with bare trees, snow, and a genuine castle, it looks Scottish enough. While the action sequences obviously aren’t going to challenge a modern blockbuster for their creative choreography, there’s some effective swashbuckling when David and Breck escape the ship, and a decent chase through the snow thereafter. Cain definitely looks the party of a dandyish adventurer, and acquits himself well where it counts too — by which I mean, he seems pretty handy with a sword.

Swashes being buckled

Kidnapped may not be an unheralded classic begging for rediscovery, but it’s a fun jaunt nonetheless. Proof, if it were needed, that there’s often worth to be discovered by digging into the more forgotten and esoteric corners of film history.

4 out of 5

Kidnapped was the feature presentation of Conquest Program No.9, which you can read more about here. It is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #59

Justice leaves its mark.

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 138 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 17th July 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 11th December 1998
First Seen: TV, 31st August 2002 (probably)

Stars
Antonio Banderas (Desperado, Puss in Boots)
Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Remains of the Day)
Catherine Zeta-Jones (Entrapment, Chicago)

Director
Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Legend of Zorro)

Screenwriters
John Eskow (Pink Cadillac, Air America)
Ted Elliott (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

Story by
Ted Elliott (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Lone Ranger)
Terry Rossio (The Legend of Zorro, National Treasure: Book of Secrets)
Randall Jahnson (The Doors, Sunset Strip)

Based on
The character of Zorro, created by Johnston McCulley.

The Story
After his brother is murdered, Alejandro Murrieta seeks revenge by becoming the protégé of Don Diego de la Vega — the man who used to be Zorro. Alejandro’s nemesis is Captain Love, righthand man to Don Rafael Montero, who 20 years ago killed de la Vega’s wife and stole his daughter — so de la Vega wants some revenge of his own.

Our Hero
A headstrong street thief, Alejandro Murrieta would surely get himself killed were it not for the intervention of Don Diego de la Vega and the training he provides — and his own charm, of course.

Our Villain
Don Rafael Montero plans to purchase California from General Santa Anna using gold secretly mined from the General’s own land. When Zorro’s actions threaten to expose the plan, he decides to destroy the mine and kill its slave workers. As if murdering de la Vega’s wife and stealing his child didn’t make him evil enough.

Best Supporting Character
Anthony Hopkins still seems an unlikely choice for the ageing former Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega, but his performance is perfectly calibrated nonetheless: wise and teasing of his young charge in equal measure. Hopkins also has the remarkable ability to absolutely own every line — reading the quotes page on IMDb, it’s impossible not to hear his voice.

Memorable Quote
“There is a saying, a very old saying: when the pupil is ready the master will appear.” — Don Diego de la Vega

Memorable Scene
Escaping from the villains, Zorro finds refuge in a nearby church, where he hides in the confessional. In comes Elena, wanting to confess her infatuation with the masked bandit. Hilarity ensues.

Technical Wizardry
The key to most good swashbucklers is the sword-fighting, and The Mask of Zorro is up to scratch. Banderas was trained by Bob Anderson, a legendary sword master — he also worked on Highlander, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and many more. Not least, he coached Errol Flynn of all people — and Anderson reckoned Banderas was the best swordsman he’d worked with since Flynn.

Making of
Producer Steven Spielberg originally considered directing, but was eventually busy with Saving Private Ryan. Apparently Tom Cruise would’ve been his Zorro. Spielberg’s contributions included putting Catherine Zeta-Jones forward to be cast, and suggesting the epilogue scene (with Alejandro and Elena’s baby) because the original stopping point (Old Zorro dying in his daughter’s arms) was too depressing. At one time Robert Rodriguez was also set to direct — he cast Banderas, and wanted Salma Hayek in the Zeta-Jones role — but he clashed with the studio over budget and, apparently, his concept of the film as violent and R-rated.

Previously on…
The Mask of Zorro was a new, standalone Zorro adventure, but the character has a long screen history — over 40 film appearances, according to Wikipedia, including five serials, plus a dozen TV series and multiple radio dramas. The first was 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, starring the original swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks. Better known nowadays is the 1940 remake starring Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone (which nearly made it on to this list).

Next time…
Seven years later, sequel The Legend of Zorro sees Zorro attempt to thwart a threat to California’s pending statehood, this time with his kid in tow. It wasn’t that good. Naturally, there’s talk of a reboot.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
1 BAFTA nomination (Costume Design)
3 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Costumes)

What the Critics Said
“a pointed riposte to those who say they don’t make ’em like that anymore. The return of the legendary swordsman is well served by a grandly mounted production in the classical style [which] favors dashing adventure, dramatic and political intrigue, well-motivated characters and romance between mightily attractive leads over fashionable cynicism, cheap gags, over-stressed contemporary relevance and sensation for sensation’s sake. […] Achieving the right tone for the picture was crucial, as it easily could have tilted either in the direction of old-fashioned stodginess or, more likely in this day and age, of inappropriately high-tech thrills and gratuitous violence. Clearly, everyone concerned, beginning with scripters John Eskow, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and GoldenEye director Martin Campbell, was at pains to endow the story with sufficient dramatic and emotional credibility, and to go beyond glibness in its humor.” — Todd McCarthy, Variety

Score: 83%

What the Public Say
“as this is a Steven Spielberg production, what The Mask of Zorro is really about is the art of filmmaking, and it shows what some imaginative people (director Martin Campbell among them) can do with a movie camera. There are some old-fashioned stunts and physical comedy that are carried off just about perfectly here. And usually, these shoot-the-works movies peter out just before the end credits, but this one has the most satisfying adventure-movie wrap-up I’ve seen in a long time.” — Movie Movie Blog Blog

Verdict

A couple of years after he revitalised the Bond franchise with GoldenEye, director Martin Campbell does the same for a whole subgenre — the swashbuckler — in this fun revival of the masked Californian vigilante. Mixing slickly choreographed action with doses of humour, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously but doesn’t tip over into farce either (traits definitely shared with the aforementioned Bond revival). The result is thoroughly entertaining, and an example of ’90s blockbuster filmmaking at its finest.

#60 will… take the red pill.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

2015 #175
Raoul Walsh | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English) | U

Douglas Fairbanks started out in comedies, where he was so popular he was quickly established as “the King of Hollywood”, which allowed him to attempt something different: an historical adventure film. The Mark of Zorro was a huge hit, in the process defining the swashbuckling genre, so he followed it with The Three Musketeers, then Robin Hood. With each new film he tried to outdo his last, and that culminated in his Arabian Nights fantasy, The Thief of Bagdad.

Fairbanks plays the titular thief, who steals only what he can’t afford — that’s everything. Well, that’s not strictly true: he’s clearly stolen a load of cash, so he must be able to afford quite a bit. But shush, I will have my Aladdin references. No, the thief mainly steals for the thrill and the adventure, and to have whatever he wants. As he tells a fella in a mosque, “My reward is here. Paradise is a fool’s dream and Allah is a myth.” I guess you could say things like that in the ’20s without being brutally murdered.

Anyway, it’s time for the princess of Bagdad (Julanne Johnston) to get married. Princes are called from far and wide to vie for her hand, and one of the keenest is the Prince of the Mongols (Sojin Kamiyama), who wants to add Bagdad to his empire (because only a truly evil ruler would use their army to conquer Baghdad). With goods flooding into the palace in preparation, the thief decides it would be a grand time to burgle the place. As he goes about his thievery, he comes across the princess’ bedchamber and falls in love. Or maybe just lust, because his next plan is to masquerade as a prince and steal her.

With the aid of his comic chum (Snitz Edwards), the thief pretends to be Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa Ahmed of the Isles, of the Seas, and of the Seven Palaces. It’s a made-up title, of course, which alerts the Mongol Prince to the attempted deception — though as he’s “the Governor of Wah Hoo and the Island of Wak”, he’s a fine one to talk. The thief manages to make it to see the princess anyway. She instantly falls in love with him, and he realises he loves her too, so can’t just kidnap her. His whole value system is undermined! But now he’ll have to win her hand by more honest means. Well, she already loves him, so he’s halfway there; but he’s an imposter, so there’s that to sort out yet.

The main problem with The Thief of Bagdad, for me, was that it took more-or-less 90 minutes to get to this point. That stretch isn’t without entertainment value, both deliberate, like Fairbanks’ joyful displays of athleticism, and not, like the overwrought intertitles in which characters speak like Yoda by way of Shakespeare (“Thou wilt wed the suitor who first toucheth the rose-tree” / “He touched not the rose-tree”). The beginning is where the pace really suffers: the multitudinous ways the thief goes about his larceny are individually entertaining and/or ingenious, but as an introduction that merely needs to establish “this man is a clever, successful thief”, it’s overkill. Lovers of Fairbanks’ theatrics may well disagree, but I wanted the real story to get going.

However, once it gets past this languorous preamble, the film really comes alive for its final hour. Everyone’s off on a quest, and so we leave the epic Bagdad set for an array of other equally-impressive locales. Here’s where the film’s real adventure lies, as we whizz through multiple fantasy landscapes, the thief battling monsters as he goes, and the Mongol Prince plotting to conquer the city. This is also where most of the film’s famed special effects are to be found. So groundbreaking that they were analysed in scientific magazines at the time, they still have the power to enchant viewers the best part of a century later. Okay, sometimes you can see the wires, but that rarely undermines the magic. While a giant bat looks quite cuddly, a dragon-ish alligator-creature is fairly effective, and an underwater-spider-thing is actually rather creepy.

Even more impressive are the sets. The work of famed Hollywood designer William Cameron Menzies, at the time Fairbanks felt Menzies was too inexperienced to work on such a big project. Undeterred, he created a collection of detailed drawings and convinced the star/producer. No surprise that worked, because Menzies’ designs are extraordinary. His complex, detailed, unreal drawings are recreated accurately on screen (examples of this can be seen in the ‘video essay’ included on the film’s Blu-ray releases, for instance), using numerous techniques to create truly fantastical scenes: ginormous sets (they covered six-and-a-half acres), built on a reflective enamel floor (which had to be constantly re-enamelled throughout the shoot) and painted in certain ways to make them appear floaty; or glass matte paintings used to seamlessly extended or enhance shots. Reportedly 20,000 feet of film — that’s hours and hours worth — were shot just to test the lighting and painting of the sets.

Such visual extravagance could overwhelm many a movie star, but not so Fairbanks. I suppose it helped that, as the biggest male name in Hollywood movies, and with his own production companies and studios, he was in charge. Whatever the credits may say (not that there are any on the current widely-available prints), it seems Fairbanks was as much the film’s director as Raoul Walsh, who was hired because he used to run and box with the star. Consequently the film is built around Fairbanks, his skills and his interests — it’s a true star vehicle. He exudes fun, embodying that swashbuckling spirit of adventure and derring-do, and clearly having a whale of a time, which makes it all the more enjoyable for us, too.

Nonetheless, other cast members manage to make a mark. Kamiyama is an effective villain, with his skull-like face and menacing manner, in particular when he unleashes one of my favourite threats ever at the ruler of Bagdad: “You shall add joy to the wedding festival by being boiled in oil.” Who doesn’t think deep-fried caliph is joyous? In a star-making supporting role, Anna May Wong is indeed memorable as a traitorous handmaiden. That’s more than can be said of her employer: Johnston is a bit of a non-starter as the princess, which I guess is what happens when you have to re-cast because your original choice departs part way through production. Comedian Snitz Edwards was also a mid-production replacement, drafted in to provide comic relief. It wasn’t necessary: he doesn’t add much, and Fairbanks had it covered.

The Thief of Bagdad succeeds most as a spectacle, especially as it has various kinds to offer: Fairbanks’ stunts, Menzies’ sets, the still-remarkable effects work. It may be a bit bloated, but Fairbanks’ exuberance infects the entire production so that, when it’s at its best, it’s immensely enjoyable.

4 out of 5

This review is part of Swashathon! A blogathon of swashbuckling adventure. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host Movies Silently.

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

2009 #30
Randall Wallace | 132 mins | download | 12 / PG-13

The Man in the Iron MaskFrom the off it’s clear that The Man in the Iron Mask is not going to go well. It’s an adaptation of a tale of the Three Musketeers, so naturally is set in historical Paris… where everyone has a different accent and very few of them are French. It is, to be blunt, a horrid mishmash — much like the whole film.

Wordy political intrigue tries to coexist with broad comedy which is squashed against swashbuckling adventure. The latter two could co-exist, but the film feels like it wants to be the former and so suffers for it. The comedy jars too much to be effective, while instances of unintentional comedy unfortunately provoke more frequent laughs. It should at least be able to swash buckles effectively — these are the Three Musketeers after all — but entirely fails to achieve this until the climax. The plot, semi-faithfully adapted from one of Alexandre Dumas’ original novels, offers a level of complexity to which the film clearly aspires, but the adaptation and acting struggle to match it.

The majority of performances are marred by overacting — John Malkovich, especially, is woefully miscast, while Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t appear to give a particularly good performance as either Louis or Philippe. In DiCaprio’s defence I suspect this is actually the script’s fault, because he manages to clearly differentiate the two when they are silent or pretending to be the other — it’s when they open their mouths that it all goes wrong. Gérard Depardieu is fine as the comic relief, though that relief is tonally misplaced, while Gabriel Byrne makes an interesting d’Artagnan — there’s nothing at all wrong with him, and yet he doesn’t feel quite right. Which leaves just Jeremy Irons among the main cast. He fares the best of the lot, even getting the occasional scene or speech that is genuinely quite good, though it’s clear he is far better than the material. To be fair, the same is also true of everyone else.

For all this, The Man in the Iron Mask is more disappointing then bad. The Bastille-set climax is occasionally brilliant and never less than entertaining, delivering on the film’s swashbuckling promise in a copious fashion. Throughout, there’s the occasional good scene — or even just a decent line of dialogue — and you can briefly understand what inspired such quality actors to sign on.

Something went wrong somewhere though, and the obvious culprit must be writer/director Randall Wallace. The story’s good, but that’s Dumas’, while the adaptation’s weak — and that’s Wallace’s. The actor’s are good, but battle the poor script — and that, obviously, is Wallace’s. They don’t seem to have been given any significant direction, they’re not helped by an uneven tone, and even the cinematography falls short, failing to make the spectacular locations and costumes look suitably beautiful on screen — and we know who’s ultimately in charge of all that too.

The Man in the Iron Mask desperately wants to be better than it is — it’s a great tale, packed with politics and swashbuckling, and this particular version has the high calibre cast to pull it off. But both are left floundering by a writer/director who isn’t up to either task — poor dialogue, a gyratingly uneven tone and lacklustre direction abound. A missed opportunity, and all the more disappointing for it.

2 out of 5